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Editorial Advisory Board: It’s not all on Commissioner Harrison

The Baltimore City Council recently demanded that Police Commissioner Michael Harrison present a hasty plan detailing how the police will make the city safer. The commissioner complied in short order and told the council there would be, in essence, a larger police presence.

Everyone is very upset by the violent crime gripping the city; way too many of these acts of violence involve the use of a handgun by people who are not permitted to possess a gun.

We do need an effective plan, and it must involve getting guns off the streets of Baltimore. At the same time, the plan must be in keeping with a trend to back away from overly aggressive policing, the so-called get-tough-on-crime policy.

Improved law enforcement practices will strengthen relations between the police and Baltimore’s residents. And perhaps better relations will result in the cooperation needed for more effective policing. At least the Johns-Hopkins Baltimore Collaborative for Violence Reduction believes this to be the case.

The police must focus on taking guns away from people who are most likely to engage in violent crimes, and that should include those people who illegally carry handguns. In this city, we are awash in handguns and way too many are carried illegally.

Guns are a national problem, not just in Charm City. United States civilians own the most guns of any country in the world. There are enough guns here to give more than one gun to every resident – there are estimated 120 guns for every 100 people in the United States. Japan has 1 per 100 people.

Every time police answer a call, whether for a traffic accident or domestic violence, they will treat the call as if a gun might be present and their lives placed in jeopardy. They enter, or should enter every crime scene, in a state of high alert, ready to defend themselves. The result of this expectation is often tragic, and these circumstances often create a hard feeling toward the police.

Available options

There are several ways to control the use and possession of handguns. The first is to identify those people who are most apt to illegally carry and use these weapons to kill or maim.  This effort should be a major component of the commissioner’s plan, and to be most effective, the city’s residents need to be able to trust the police.

Without trust, there will be little assistance or cooperation offered.  It is far more likely trust will exist when the police act legally, professionally and in a way reasonably acceptable to the community they serve.

The city is in triage, and police reform may clash with the need to act in ways that will get the most number of guns out of the hands of prohibited people and off the streets. For example, in some jurisdictions police are told not to make routine traffic stops or not to stop people they suspect of possession of cannabis without a medical permit. Yet in one study, 42 percent of gun arrests by the New York City Police Department were a direct result of finding guns in cars following traffic stops for infractions as trivial as broken tail lights.

A second way to get guns off the streets involves enacting and enforcing laws that are intended to restrict the trafficking of guns, particularly handguns, and keeping those guns out of the hands of people who are not permitted by law to possess guns. And while there are laws on the books already restricting possession, there is more that Congress can do – and it must be Congress in order to create a uniform law applicable to every state.

This is critical because, for example, while Maryland has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation relating to handguns, approximately 75 percent of the guns used in crimes in Maryland come from states with lax laws.

Congress must step up to the plate with a keen eye and swing hard, because blanket laws are needed and not every state will enact similar gun restrictions to create uniform laws governing and restricting the flow of handguns. There are many other restrictions Congress can impose on guns, although few, if any, of these will have a quick effect because so many guns are already in circulation and they do not wear out.

For example, universal background checks, waiting periods before possession is permitted, age increases, red flag laws, departments that take seriously red flag warnings, prohibitions associated with domestic violence, and enhanced regulation of licensed gun dealers. There should be monitoring of local social media by operators trained to discern  threats. And once again, the community needs to partner with the authorities on this effort, and that demands trust.

Third, at the local level, police and prosecutors must coordinate their activities because effective enforcement and prosecution of gun, and other, crimes will impact violent crime.  This is particularly true of repeat offenders. In Chicago during one recent period, only 10 percent of shooters were arrested, without much effect on crime. Those who are likely to commit shooting crimes need to be identified and taken off the streets. Ethical, data-driven policing can help.

Harrison’s choices

As part of the commissioner’s plan, we would like to see the police use data to allocate resources effectively to reduce violent gun crimes. Police, or others, need to use available date, and develop new data, to identify and allow focus on those people who are at high risk of shooting or being shot.

This is not to suggest that the underlying causes of gun violence should not be defined and solved.  But the immediate problem is getting guns off the streets in order to save lives and no doubt, this city is in a battle for its own life.

These police-based approaches take thought and time to implement.  We are confident that Commissioner Harrison, a pro, is looking at every option and is devoting substantial efforts to figure how best to use the resources at his disposal to reduce gun violence, but he can’t do it alone. No doubt he has had many sleepless nights as has Mayor Brandon Scott.

And we should note that the mayor and his city solicitor very recently sued a prominent maker of ‘ghost guns,’ guns that are only partially complete so that their components can be sold through the mail and made into functioning firearms with simple tools. Whether the lawsuit is successful or not, it evidences a creative approach to the gun problem.

If the council wants a violent crime reduction plan it should get one. But everyone needs to understand this is not only a  police problem. The police can’t get the job done without substantial help.

Editorial Advisory Board members Arthur F. Fergensen, Susan Francis, Leigh Goodmark and Ericka N. King did not participate in this opinion.

EDITORIAL ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS

James B. Astrachan, Chair

James K. Archibald

Gary E. Bair

Andre M. Davis

Arthur F. Fergenson

Nancy Forster

Susan Francis

Leigh Goodmark

Roland Harris

Michael Hayes

Julie C. Janofsky

Ericka N. King

Angela W. Russell

Debra G. Schubert

H. Mark Stichel

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, or if a conflict exists, majority views and the names of members who do not participate will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.